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What Is Anticipatory Grief?

Grieving doesn’t only happen after you have lost someone (or something) that was very important to you. When you know that a death or other loss is imminent, you may begin to experience physical and emotional distress before the event actually occurs. This is often referred to as anticipatory grief.

What Is Grief?

Before we delve into anticipatory grief, let’s take a moment to review what “standard” grief is.

Grief is an emotional response that occurs in the aftermath of a loss. We typically think of grief as the psychological pain that a person experiences when someone that they care about dies. The death of a loved one is perhaps the most common cause of grief – but it is not the only one.

People may also experience grief after events such as:

  • A divorce 
  • Job loss
  • Loss of a home
  • The end of a friendship
  • The death of a pet

Following the death of a loved one or another significant loss, grief can manifest in many ways, such as:

  • Deep sadness
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on anything other than the loss
  • Being easily confused or distracted
  • A sense of emotional numbness or detachment
  • Lack of motivation or sense of purpose
  • Excessive focus on reminders of the loss
  • Behavioral changes to avoid reminders of the loss
  • Headaches and stomach aches
  • Nausea
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Pervasive fatigue

For decades, many people (including mental health professionals) believed that grief followed the series of five predictable phases that Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross established in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

In recent years, many professionals have moved away from this concept of grief and toward an understanding that grief can affect different people in different ways.

What Is Anticipatory Grief?

In addition to understanding that there are many ways to experience grief, we now realize that there are actually several different types of grief. Once such type is known to as anticipatory grief.

Also sometimes called preparatory grief, anticipatory grief is a form of grieving that happens before the actual loss occurs. Perhaps the most common cause of anticipatory grief is caring for a loved one who has cancer or another terminal illness. 

Seeing someone suffer, understanding that their condition is likely to end in their death, and being unable to reverse the progression of their disease can be an excruciating experience. The emotions that a person feels during this period can be similar, but not identical, to what they may feel after losing a loved one. The following are examples of what anticipatory grief can feel like:

  • You have begun to mourn your loved one’s loss, even though they are still with you.
  • You are angry about what they are going through.
  • You resent that you cannot alleviate your loved one’s pain.
  • You feel guilty for worrying about how your life will be affected by your loved one’s death.
  • You have begun to feel lonely and isolated.
  • You become overwhelmingly sad at random points throughout the day.
  • You find it difficult to experience joy or view the future with hope.

Both “standard” and anticipatory grief are normal, completely understandable reactions to difficult experiences. However, in some cases, the symptoms of anticipatory grief can become so severe that they undermine a person’s ability to function. In the next section, we’ll discuss ways to prevent this from occurring. We’ll also address how to respond if anticipatory grief becomes overwhelming. 

How Can I Manage Anticipatory Grief?

Anticipatory grief is not a mental health disorder. But it can have a profound negative impact on your mental health as well as on your physical well-being. Here are five suggestions that can help you manage your anticipatory grief:

  • Express your emotions: Talk to a close friend or a trusted family member. Select someone with whom you can be completely honest. Simply putting your pain into words can be a tremendously cathartic experience.
  • Keep a journal: Journaling doesn’t have to be a replacement for speaking with a friend or family member. This is simply another way of expressing your emotions and potentially gaining a new perspective on what you have been feeling. 
  • Don’t ignore your physical health: Make sure you’re eating nutritious foods, getting an appropriate among of sleep, and incorporating regular exercise into your schedule. If you neglect your physical health, that can have a calamitous impact on your emotional well-being.
  • Practice mindfulness: Don’t let your fears of the future rob you of the time you have left with your loved one. Focus on the present moment to the greatest degree that you can. Even in times of anxiety and pain, you can find moments of hope and beauty – as long as you make the effort to notice them. 
  • Get professional help: Depending on how severely you have been impacted by anticipatory grief, you may want to consider scheduling a session with a therapist, counselor, spiritual advisor, or other professional. 

There is nothing wrong with being sad, afraid, or even angry. These are normal, healthy responses. But if these feelings become overwhelming – or if you try to hide from them or numb yourself by abusing alcohol or other drugs – you can incur considerable harm. You should never feel ashamed about asking for help. 

Remember: If you neglect your own mental health, you won’t be able to provide the most meaningful support to your loved one.

Find Mental Health Treatment in Atlanta, GA

Peachtree Wellness Solutions offers personalized outpatient care to adults in the Atlanta area whose lives have been disrupted by anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. If your struggles with anticipatory grief have progressed to the level that you are having difficulty functioning in one or more important areas of life, we may have the services you need. 

To learn more about how we can help, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our admissions page or call our center today.